Note: This review reflects my own opinions and I would welcome comments, favorable or not.
This book is based on a PhD dissertation written by Gillian Kelly for the University of Glasgow. Published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2019.
The point of the book is that Robert Taylor is a “lost” star. He was extremely famous in his day but not as well known today as some of his contemporaries like Clark Gable and James Stewart. There is some truth to this. Ms. Kelly contacted me when she was writing her dissertation. I suggested that she look closely at the House Un-American Activities Commttee in 1947. Those hearings are not the same as the Senate hearings held by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the following decade.
Mr. Taylor testified for 35 minutes in October 1947 and the American left has never forgiven him for it. A left wing activist successfully agitated to have the Taylor name removed from the Sony Pictures, formerly MGM, studio. Scurrilous articles were written by such left-wing critics as Richard Schickel. It was widely circulated that Mr. Taylor was stupid, although his career refutes the charge. If you look at any You Tube video honoring Mr. Taylor, you will find angry negative comments from left wing fanatics. This has a great deal to do with Mr. Taylor’s “lostness..” Ms. Kelly’s book does mention the hearings in passing without any understanding of their impact.
A major theme of the book is Mr. Taylor’s ordinariness or “normalness.” Mr. Taylor’s longevity and his ability to adapt to the changing world of Hollywood would seem, however, to be extraordinary. He was a star from the 1930s to the 1960s and still had his own television show, “Death Valley Days,” at the time of his death in 1969. In 1959 Robert Taylor moved seamlessly from the movies to television and then back again when “The Detectives” ended in 1962.
Despite the fact that Ms. Kelly told me that she would be working only from the Taylor films, there is a lengthy chapter about movie magazines and how they portrayed the actor. She concentrates heavily, although not exclusively, on the British publication Picturegoer.
There are a number of factual errors in the book, the worst of which is the consistent misspelling of Mr. Taylor’s original last name, Brugh. It is spelled throughout the book as Burgh. Barbara Stanwyck was four, not two years older than Mr. Taylor (p. 46). She called him Junior. On page 41, Mr. Taylor is referred to as a soldier. He served in the Navy and therefore was a sailor. The author repeats the incorrect story on p. 56 that Mr. Taylor received an award as “worst actor of the year” by Harvard. The Harvard Hasty Pudding Club didn’t begin giving awards until 1967 (Wikipedia).
On pages 170-172, the author states that Mr. Taylor “appeared less and less frequently on screen [on his TV show, The Detectives] with each subsequent incarnation of the show.” This is incorrect. It was agreed in the beginning that Mr. Taylor would limit his appearances, On January 13, 1959 Mr. Taylor wrote in a letter “for the ones I appear full time I will draw $7,500 for three days work. For the ones I only “host” and appear in briefly, I’ll draw $4,500.” (Jane Ellen Wayne, Robert Taylor, the Man With the Perfect Face,1973, 1987, p. 203.) Mr. Taylor starred in at least 13 of 33 Season One episodes or 39%; at least 14 of 35 Season Two episodes or 40%; at least 13 of 30 Season Episodes or 43%. This is not appearing less frequently.
On page 123 the author says that Bataan, 1943, “was the first film in which he wore a uniform as an active male engaged in combat.” In 1942, Mr. Taylor played a Navy man engaged in combat aboard a warship in Stand By for Action and in 1940 a Navy pilot in Flight Command.
The academic world speaks in jargon, designed to separate the elite from the peasants. Ms. Kelly is fond of jargon, and uses such terms as homosocial, the erotic gaze, “homo-eroticism that sets the gangster genre outside of the usual Oedipal trajectory” (p. 117); encoded etc. This sort of thing doesn’t make for straightforward reading. She is also extremely fond of phallic images, ranging from cigars to rifles. For her, a cigar is never just a cigar.
As a postmodernist, Ms. Kelly regards normality as fluid and unfixed (p.186). She keeps remarking on Mr. Taylor’s normality but isn’t clear as to what that means. She also discusses his masculinity and sexiness. I agree that he was both extremely masculine and irresistibly sexy, but she describes several of his characters as brutal which has caveman overtones and which is misleading. Only Charlie Gilson in The Last Hunt fits this definition. A reviewer of Quo Vadis referred to Robert Taylor’s masculine vitality, which I believe animated every role he played.
The biggest failing of the book is the failure of the author to understand the viciousness and vengefulness of the American far left. This is probably because she is British and more removed from it. After the HUAC hearings, the domestic and international left went ballistic. After the hearings, Taylor’s films were banned in Communist Hungary and in Czechoslovakia, and Communists called for a boycott of his films in France. (Wikipedia). The negative articles and publicity continued decades after the actor’s death. In 1989 an employee of Lorimar productions agitated to have Robert Taylor’s name removed from one of their (formerly MGM’s) buildings due to the late actor’s politics. This was done.
Richard Schickel was a film critic for Time Magazine from 1972-2009. Later he wrote for the Marxist leaning website Truthdig. He is a member of the self-appointed left-wing elite who like to tell the rest of us what to do and what to think. “Taylor’s handicaps were more prosaic: a silly original name—Spangler Arlington Brugh—and a profoundly provincial birthplace—Filley, Nebraska. He studied the cello, learned what little he knew about acting at Pomona College and remained something’s of mama’s boy even after he signed his first MGM contract.” What is especially noticeable about Mr. Schickel’s diatribe is its childishness. What on earth do so-called “silly names” or “provincial” birthplaces have to do with an actor’s performances? Mr. Schickel sounds like a small boy screaming insults in the schoolyard. But this is typical of the left’s concerted campaign to “disappear” Mr. Taylor. If Mr. Taylor is indeed a “lost” star, the left has played its part. On p. 187, Ms. Kelly states that “there is a vast range of material concerning Taylor on the internet, but the material itself is in no particular order. I beg to differ. Since 2012 I have been the owner of the blog Robert Taylor Actor which has over 550 entries arranged in categories like films, biography, memorials, etc. As a retired Full Professor, I do know how to organize material. Gillian Kelly hopes that her book is a first step towards making Mr. Taylor less “lost.” It is a step, yes, but there are 6 other books about Mr. Taylor, his life and his work that beat her to the punch. Her book is a contribution but hardly the first step.